For our fellow readers still trying to find sunshine in the UK, we celebrated the first (only?) day of summer by walking from Worthing, West Sussex (for those unfamiliar, picture a modern-day Innsmouth) to Brighton while listening to all the soundtracks for the first three Halloween films. Hey, seasonal!
For me, the only thing that could top William Basinski’s orchestral imagining of The Disintegration Loops live in 2012 (possibly my favourite ever gig) is if John Carpenter and Alan Howarth ever decided to do a note-for-note live performance of the Halloween, Halloween II, and Halloween III: Season of The Witch scores.
If this sounds implausible, try listening to the three soundtracks back to back. It requires almost tantric stamina and a mind so open your brain may be in danger of falling out, sure, but it’s a way of listening which has ‘unlocked’ these albums for me. The actual ‘music’ content of the Halloween soundtrack album is so slight that each cue had to reappear under each of its reiterations in the film under a different title just to half-fill a CD. Forming the first movement of an epic symphony comprising a handful of repeating themes in total, though, the Halloween symphony begins to approximate something like a Steve Reich classic, or indeed a Disintegration Loops where the loops don’t disintegrate, but instead stalk you, sounding even stronger and harder to kill each time they reformulate.
The main theme is one of the most identifiable motifs in cinema history. It’s every bit as good as the slashes of strings that Bernard Herrmann hacked Janet Leigh apart with, and which served as Carpenter’s main inspiration for his 1978 slasher (so much of a Psycho homage that Leigh’s own daughter was cast as the quarry of ‘The Shape’ aka Michael Myers – sort of Norman Bates gone supernatural).
The Halloween theme is as minimal and precise as the code of Music For 18 Musicians. Although it’s a deceptively simple pattern that doesn’t move much other than hopping up and down the octave in alternating rounds, it seems to scroll back and forth endlessly, like a musical palindrome, and takes some attentive listening to decode.
Carpenter had only three days to write and record all of the music for the film, and his musical involvement was determined by resource: “I’m fast and I’m cheap.” Unlike his later scores with Alan Howarth, composed by playing along to a synchronised cut of the movie, Carpenter simply improvised each Halloween theme straight to tape, with no visual cues. When recording the first piece for the soundtrack, Carpenter kept returning to something his music professor father taught him as a child. Trying to explain the 5/4 time signature, Carpenter snr tapped out a distinctive rhythm on the family bongos. John wondered what this rhythm would sound like using piano rather than drum as percussion – the result was the Halloween main titles!
There are no more than three notes in the main phrase. It’s hard to specify exactly why the pattern is so evocative but I think it has something to do with how Carpenter approaches narrative. He disdains character arcs, backstories, and subtext. In Halloween, The Shape isn’t anything more complex than a physical embodiment of evil, and his pursuit of Laurie is without reason.* Carpenter hates filmmakers who “do the audience’s work for them”. This approach works well in horror, damping down any extraneous information so that the cinema becomes purely rhythmic, instinctive, and visceral. Halloween’s music works on these premises, too. The theme is bareboned, a skeleton. It is fingertips drumming on the back of your brain – a nagging, insistent thought that won’t go away, the implications of which you can’t quite place. Its effect is subliminal rather than atmospheric – horror soundtracks are frequently drowned in swirling, heavy-pressure atmosphere, where there is little room for ambiguity. You are explicitly told what to feel and when to feel it. Your imagination is left gasping for air.
The Halloween theme works on the same principle that Slayer’s thrash metal did once they began to slow their neck-snapping slasher movies-as-albums down to a heartbeat-failing pace, circa South of Heaven. It’s the difference between brutality and menace. Brutality is the pornography of gore; menace is brutality subtracted, that’s had the data stripped out of it. Its violence is psychological and implied.
So while the insinuations of dread and suspense in Halloween are more literal and thus comprehensible than the association-free tonal clusters and pulses of Reich, Halloween as home listening is still likely to be problematic for most listeners who are not literate in minimalism. In the absence of narrative though, Halloween as music reinvigorates in repetition.
It isn’t until about halfway through Halloween II that our imaginary Halloween symphony begins to spiral outside the main two slowly dueling themes. Consumed in one sitting, those rare changes become more suspenseful and precious, making the plunges back into the title theme ever more heroic. Every time it returns its aural effect is perverse, smartly slapping the serotonin receptors like it’s a rock hit, and not the soundtrack to 17 kinds of homicide.
In fact, the reprise actually becomes proper-majestic in the second half of II, when the score suddenly swells into the ‘Halloween II Suite’ – a six-movement bonus orchestral envisioning of the Halloween theme, with baleful brass adding several surges of texture to the previously monochromatic flicker of Carpenter’s synth and piano.
Halloween III: Season of The Witch in this context is an evil third act. As H3 broke from the Michael Myers narrative**, so Howarth and Carpenter adjust to a new musical vocabulary for the score: a supremely dark, pulsating soundscape that throbs like a wounded body part. Simple two or three note musical patterns still emerge, but they’re now computed in the eye of a droning vortex of synth.
Carpenter would later rue that the H1 soundtrack was so heavy on ‘stingers’ – cattle-prods of sound used to startle the audience during opportune moments, but H3 is even more so, only now the stingers actually sting. Listened to on headphones, braincell-piercing synth-shrieks stab at your ears from either side, their malevolent circling initially obscured through a fog of analogue Prophet and ARP pads.
As a finale for our symphony, it works as a sort of machine-cold requiem, where the Halloween score is finally released from shadowing the creeped-out movements of a serial killer and left to stain the senses with a delicious smear of sound.
*If you disregard the clunky Return Of The Jedi-style reveal in Halloween II that Carpenter only reluctantly agreed to add
** A bizarre story about cursed Halloween masks that doesn’t feature Myers or have any continuity with the other nine films in the franchise